Hazel McHaffie

first lines

First lines

What is it that makes us pick up a book and then buy/borrow it? The author’s name? Title? Cover? Back cover blurb? A combination, maybe?

What makes us open the book and having started, keep reading? First line? First page? First chapter?

Books 1Well, last week I told you about Ian Rankin releasing the first line of his new novel. I doubt very much if that will ever become an oft-quoted introduction, but it led me to thinking about famous first lines and what it is that makes them memorable. Ones that spring instantly to mind are …

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. (Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.  (L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between)

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (George Orwell, 1984)

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. (Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca)

Marley was dead, to begin with. (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol)

But I rather think that some of these have acquired legendary status, not just for their literary merit, but because they evoke fond memories of classic favourites.

There are other first lines, less well known, that instantly grabbed my attention and made me want to read on to see what the book was all about. If this author could write a few words this well, I’d be happy to commit a day or two/a week or two to finding out what he/she has to tell me.Books 2

It was the day my grandmother exploded. (Iain M Banks, The Crow Road)
Not an everyday occurrence, grandmothers exploding, so intriguing. How? Why? Where? When? What happened next?

The scent of slaughter, some believe, can linger in a place for years. (Nicholas Evans, The Loop)
Who’s been slaughtered? Who’s smelling their deaths today? Is it true?

I am a lawyer, and I am in prison. It’s a long story. (John Grisham, The Racketeer)
A story I want to hear. Why? What’s he done? How will he be treated? Is he guilty?

In their sacks they ride as in their mother’s womb: knee to chest, head pressed down, as if to die is merely to return to the flesh from which we were born, and this is a second conception. (James Bradley, The Resurrectionist)
Makes your skin crawl, doesn’t it? Who are these people condemned to such a death?

Books 3When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of my daughter. (Harlan Coben, No Second Chance)
Was there a second one? Who was shooting him? Why was it his daughter who sprang to mind?

The clothes of the dead won’t wear long. (Barbara Vine, The Brimstone Wedding)
There is so much wrapped up in this thought that transcends this one story, but I want to know what happened to make it an apposite statement.

My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. (Sarah Waters, Fingersmith)
So, why has it changed? What happened when she was Susan Trinder? What has transpired since?

I’m now thinking hard about my own first line. To date I’ve tended to concentrate more on getting the first page gripping. That introductory bit is so important; if you haven’t hooked your reader from the outset, he/she’s probably not going to bother to read on. I’ve actually often written the beginning last, spent ages refining it, for that very reason. I’ve sometimes even added a prologue to bring all the key intriguing elements to the fore and make the reader want to know how everything was resolved.

But first line? That’s a different level of demand. Fascinating to ponder.

 

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Sleeplessness and productivity

Moving mighty wardrobes …Wardrobes

… craning the neck to mitre corners on ceilings …Mitred corners

… up and down stairs with forty years worth of accumulated detritus possessions … none of these things are kind to muscles and joints already suffering wear and tear and the ravages of arthritis. So small wonder that sleep has been rather elusive during the latest stages of big renovations chez nous.

But hey ho! the old brain is safely protected in its rigid bony cage, and it’s been busily plotting the next book (well, two actually if you count the children’s annual Christmas production) in the darkness of long nights of wakefulness.

The scenes are vivid: a young woman wandering up and down the aisles of the chemists shop, reading labels and safety warnings … back at home titrating doses … cradling baby as he gulps down the milk … watching him sink deeper and deeper into unconsciousness … removing all traces …

Lying there with the video scrolling in my head, it’s so real and the sense of dread so acute, aches and pains simply vanish. And as soon as it’s a decent hour, I’m up committing the scenarios to the computer. OK, I may be knackered by the evening but I’m fired up on the adrenaline – progress with the house AND the books! Silver linings and all that jazz.

But hang on a minute …

Lying in bed: constructs perfect plot

Standing in shower: constructs perfect characters

Hanging out washing: constructs perfect setting

Sitting in front of screen: where did perfection go?!

Hey ho! Perfection is dozens of drafts away.

I’ve been toying with the idea of releasing some tempting little titbits closer to publication to whet the appetite. So I was intrigued to learn that Ian Rankin (or his publisher more likely) has just revealed the first line of his new Rebus novel – his 21st publication – Rather be the Devil, due out on 3rd November.

Rebus placed his knife and fork on the empty plate, then leaned back in his chair, studying the other diners in the restaurant.
‘Someone was murdered here, you know,’ he announced.

Would this tempt you to buy the book?

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